Lego is spending $146 million to develop a new sustainable plastic. It’s not often that manufacturers of children’s toys, or of almost anything for that matter, decide they need to invent a new material.
The Danish company worked for three years with PLA leader NatureWorks to develop an acceptable version of polylactic acid (PLA) and surely worked with other global players in the field of bioplastics. But nothing met the very demanding requirements of Lego, particularly in a category the company describes as ”clutching power” or the way the bricks attach together. Even the distinctive popping sound made by ABS is important.
In a conference sponsored by NatureWorks 15 months ago, Lego engineer Alan Rasmussen said that a newly developed PLA compound from NW was “very close”, but lacked ability to hold bricks together adequately after a couple of weeks. The issue is critical for large elaborate models that are meant to remain intact for a long time.
“The development of cost and performance competitive replacements for ABS has been an area of high focus for NatureWorks over the last year,” a NatureWorks spokesman told The Molding Blog this week. “The work we’ve been doing resulted in the successful recent launch of these 3 new Ingeo formulations. These products are semi-crystalline, and we expect the creep performance to be very competitive in end use targets. Indeed, we’re seeing strong market interest in these formulations.”
NatureWorks said that it could not to comment on any brand/OEM specific programs that may exist, or their status.
“However, NatureWorks, like many suppliers in the market, saw Lego’s announcement and commitment to ‘a new sustainable material’, which must have ‘an ever-lighter footprint than the material it replaces across key environmental and social impact areas such as fossil resource use, human rights and climate change,’ along with commensurate long term long-term investment and R&D continued research. We see Lego’s position as nothing but a huge positive for the biopolymer industry and the sustainability movement, providing a philosophical validation of exactly what NatureWorks is all about.”
Corbion, another important PLA supplier, particularly on the technical/durables side, provided this comment to The Molding Blog:
“Corbion has developed some very specific and cutting edge PLA compounds with properties similar to ABS. When molded into technical parts, these exhibit the look and feel and also technical characteristics similar to ABS, for instance with regard to gloss, colorability, scratch resistance, ductility, snap-ability, temperature resistance, etc.”
The spokesperson also said: “We are indeed aware of Lego’s press release and intentions to become a sustainable company, but we are not at liberty to disclose our development partners.”
Lego did not respond to questions I sent (responses received July 17 below), but there are a few possible explanations for its recent announcement:
- The efforts by existing PLA suppliers did not cut the mustard. Problems with creep resistance of PLA were not overcome to the company’s satisfaction. Lego is known for its extremely demanding technical requirements. Even though patent protection expired long ago for the interlocking brick system, Lego has maintained its market position (including premium pricing) by producing a very first-rate product (if only they made cars).
- Lego decided that one important way to maintain its lead going forward is to be the only toy brick maker with access to the sustainable technology that meets its requirements. If Lego had continued to work with existing suppliers, competitors would have had access to the materials’ technology it had worked so hard to develop.
- Lego actually wants to go into the plastics business, at least as a technology licensor. This is hard to believe, but it’s also very hard to believe that a Danish toy company would spend $146 million (a starting point) and hire 100 technical personnel to develop a new sustainable polymer. And surely, we’re talking about a moldable material here. Lego is one of the largest captive injection molders in the world, owning and operating several thousand Arburg injection molding machines (150 tons and under) at its plants in Denmark, Hungary and Mexico. Injection molding provides the extremely demanding tolerances (four microns) required for the Lego bricks. Lego used more than 60,000 metric tons of plastics, mostly ABS, last year. It’s not known if Lego is trying to develop sustainable alternative to the other types of plastics, such as polycarbonate, that it uses.
It’s not known what types of polymer chemistries are on the table at Lego in its program. All of the noise to date has been around PLA, which is a biodegradable thermoplastic aliphatic polyester derived from corn starch in North America; tapioca roots or starch in Asia; or sugarcane.
It would be expected that Lego will focus on a waste feedstock (such as corn stalks) and not crops that can be used as a food source. It would not seem likely that biodegradability is important because Lego sets are built to last. It would not be realistic to expect customers to take Lego bricks to a commercial composting facility at end of life. Likewise, the material would not likely be part of a commercial recycling stream.
It would appear the focus would be on carbon footprint while meeting other sustainability criteria (for example, no abusive human treatment involved or fouling of water systems).
One interesting aspect of PLA is that it is an important material for 3D printing, a technology that could play a big role in the future of Lego bricks.
Lego is a unique, and very interesting, company, for sure.
Lego response: Chemistries TBD
I received the following response this morning (July 17) from Charlotte Simonsen, Senior Director/Head of Corporate Communications,Lego:
First of all my apologies for the late answer to your e-mail that is due to vacation season here in Denmark.
1. Why did Lego decide to develop its own plastic rather than using an existing commercial bioplastic such as NatureWorks PLA, Metabolix PHA or PBS?
The LEGO Group will be working with specialists and partners to find alternatives to our present raw materials. Some of these materials may indeed be based on existing materials, but so far we have found it difficult to find materials that live up to our very high quality and safety standards, e.g. durability, strength and appearance.
2. What families of bioplastic chemistries will your researchers be exploring?
This is too early to say.
3. Who are your partners?
It is too early to comment on which future partnerships may be relevant – we are very open towards anyone who can contribute to our ambition.
4. Does Lego expect to produce the plastic it develops?
No, we don’t plan to produce raw materials ourselves.